The chilling murder of African-American, George Floyd, back in May, by a couple of ‘white’ police officers in Minneapolis, the United States, would go down as one of the defining moments of 2020. Not only did the unnerving incident further expose the century-old racial cleavages among Americans, it also resulted in weeks of a universal eruption of riots and protests to demand racial equality in America and beyond.
Watching Nigerian youth take to the streets to force an end to police misdemeanours reminds one of the events – which are still ongoing in some cities – in the US after Floyd’s murder. So far, close to a dozen lives have been lost, some fallen to police bullets, since the outbreak of the protests.
Throughout the organic settings of human existence, how to secure lives and maintain social decorum formed a major strand of communal concerns. It is for this reason that, at different stages of mankind’s evolution, the task of security remains atop of other considerations.
According to history, the term ‘police’ is derived from the Latin word ‘polis’ which loosely translates into the ‘public’. Its popularity is traced to the era of the Greek dominance of world affairs, although the act of policing was first introduced by Egyptian Pharaohs, around 3000BC, to guarantee peace amongst their subjects.
Except for a brief age during the reigns of the Roman Empire when ex-convicts and men of unsound morals were given the policing responsibility, societies the world over always reserve the job of police to untainted individuals simply because they carry an extended authority of a State. In other words, the legitimacy of the political authority in a given society is reflected in the police as an institution.
A Test of Political Legitimacy
Talking of political legitimacy, the echelon of Nigeria’s leadership appears to be in complete disarray these past days. It has been a period of an unexpected and ceaseless gush of rage by young adults who, for once, surmount the courage to brace the socio-political odds. For far too long, governments across Africa’s Sahara region seemed insulated from mass angst.
While popular citizens’ protests landed like a hurricane and swept away long-standing dictators in North Africa: Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya in the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, political leaders in other regions of Africa escaped the wrath, but only for another day. For the Nigerian youth, the discontent being expressed through the viral #EndSARSProtests is an exhibition of their accumulated frustration against the social inequality and economic deprivations which successive administrations have visited on them.
As usual of leadership from whose grasp power is drifting, the Nigerian government has yielded its hitherto uncompromising posture to assuage the angry youth, but only to be confronted with increased resistance on the streets, daily.
Police as Colonial Construct
For the protesting youth, while their civic role in fixing a particular malady has drawn worldwide applause, it would be more appreciable for all to realize that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit was(is) a mirror through which the larger tumult within the Nigeria Police Force can be viewed. And to extend that elucidation, it is equally pertinent to be told that the problem with the police in Nigeria is as old as the existence of the country.
The western-styled police system as introduced to Nigeria in 1930 by British colonialists was meant – as a protective force – to safeguard the interests of Britain in an alien land. This instrument of colonial construct was established when the Britons stole power and relegated traditional rulers after their conquest of the colony, hence only the stern, unyielding, and unsympathetic are allowed a lapel as police recruits in those days.
With 12,000-men in 1960, the already maligned status of the police became more stunted post-independence, especially when the military took charged of Nigerian affairs in 1966. The police were denied access to adequate funding, basic professional equipment, commensurate remuneration, timely training of personnel, and so forth. Over time, being called a police officer became unappealing to the best brains academically and morally, thus the floodgates were opened largely to unpolished, uneducated, poorly trained persons who see the force as the last route to survival while living in squalors in the name of barracks.
It is, therefore, unsurprising that the police have over the years maintained the unenviable status of the ‘most corrupt’ public institution in Nigeria. In November 2005, a former boss of the police, Tafa Balogun, escaped with a slap on the wrist in the form of six-month imprisonment upon conviction for stealing $100million because – according to the trial judge – the guilty had “shown remorse”. Apparently embarrassed by the brazen degeneration of security across the country, some State Executives in Nigeria recently resorted to launching sub-national security outfits with a mandate similar to that of the ineffective federal government-controlled police force.
Whilst that decision is contested as provincial insubordination to the national government which may eventually spell doom for the county considering its fragility, many see it – nonetheless – as the most fitting response to a social haemorrhage which Abuja lacks the capacity to fix.
Litany of Rights Violations
Earlier in the year, Amnesty International had documented 82 cases of violations of human rights by officers of the dreaded SARS unit between January 2017 and May 2020 hammering on the urgency for reforms and calling for justice to victims of the assaults which include extortion, torture, rape, and killing. In the same vein, the World Internal Security and Police Index (WISPI) ranked Nigeria “the worst performing country” globally in terms of policing in its 2016 report in which concerns were raised that: “There are 219 police officers to 100,000 Nigerians”.
Although the Nigerian government had in 2017 signed the Anti-Torture Act into law, yet the reality on the ground contradicts the letters of the law. Many of the abuses recorded by Amnesty’s investigation into the operations of SARS revealed a similar pattern of excruciating body and mental torture of victims in the hands of the security agents. A 2020 documentary by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) entitled “The Torture Virus” detailed how Nigerian security operatives, including members of the defunct SARS, regularly employ a painful torture technique called ‘tabay’ on suspects in their custody.
Unconfirmed reports indicate that as many as 150,000 of the current 400,000 personnel in the Nigeria Police serve as personal guards to Very Important Personalities (VIPs), mostly politicians, musicians, moguls, expatriates etc; basically to anyone and everyone who can personally afford to service the personnel financially. This leaves the policing obligations of the majority of the estimated 200million population to an insignificant 250,000 police officers, representing a ratio of 1 police officer to 668 persons, a far cry from the United Nations’ standard of one police to 400 persons.
It remains to be seen how the faltering political authority in Nigeria is able to turn the table in the face of a popular resentment by the youth. However, it is safe to presume that, judging by the latest happenings, the younger mass of Nigeria’s population would henceforth refuse to be pacified with the superficial lullabies of the past.